“Mad Men” had been on the air a whole season and a half before I jumped on the retro bandwagon.
It was 2008, a year after the first episode had aired, and binge watching was still a somewhat new thing. But once I’d seen the first episode, then the second, I was hooked. I downloaded all of season one and watched the episodes in succession on a car trip to Dallas – all the way there and all the way back.
The AMC series had so many attributes that spoke to me: Its painstaking re-creation of the fashions, decor, dimly lit steakhouses and fully stocked office bars of the 1960s. Its complicated characters. Its strong female leads, who from episode one weren’t satisfied with their secretarial/housewife roles. And most important, its drop-dead gorgeous, testosterone-riddled, tall, dark, handsome, mysterious and complicated main character, Don Draper, played so expertly by Jon Hamm that you loved him even though he was a total slime ball.
Now, it’s all about to end. After seven seasons and eight years, “Mad Men” will air its series finale on Sunday (9 p.m. on AMC). And I will once again be reminded that falling in love with a television series is as dangerous as falling in love with a new puppy – or with one of Don Draper’s wives/girlfriends/mistresses. You will outlive it, and it will hurt.
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I’ll remember many things about “Mad Men,” even beyond Don’s perfectly chiseled jawline.
▪ I’ll remember its subtlety. Creator Anthony Weiner and his team of writers never hit you over the head with what they were trying to say about the characters in each episode. Sometimes, it was obvious. This episode is about Don marrying his secretary he barely knows. This one is about Roger on the strangest LSD trip ever televised. But usually, deciphering each episode’s meaning took days of thinking and reading theories forwarded by various online recappers. And then you still weren’t completely sure.
▪ I’ll remember its quirkiness. “Mad Men” featured several scenes that will live in television infamy. The time in season three when a young executive had his foot shredded by a riding lawnmower in the office. The time in season five when Don’s new wife-turned-secretary serenaded him at a birthday party with a sexy rendition of “Zou Bisou Bisou.” The time in season seven when a mentally disturbed ad executive sliced off his own nipple and presented it to Peggy Olson as a gift. The time in season one when ice princess Betty Draper became so fed up with her domestic life sentence that she took to her front yard with an air rifle, callously shooting pigeons out of the sky as a cigarette dangled from her month.
▪ I’ll remember its tour through history. Viewers of “Mad Men” lived through John F. Kennedy’s victory over Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election, and Kennedy’s assassination three years later. The show included the characters’ reaction to the death of Marilyn Monroe, the Memorial Day Civil Rights Protest of 1966, and the arrival of the firm’s first black employee.
As Weiner has expertly drawn the series to an end over the past several weeks, setting up plot lines that are at once shocking and not-that-surprising – Pete flees to Wichita, Betty accepts her cancer diagnosis with no emotion – he’s put a fine point on a topic I’d read about and knew about but never truly appreciated: the struggles women faced in the 1960s/1970s workplace.
One of “Mad Men’s” main story plots has been the development of Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway. Peggy started the series as Don’s mousy secretary. But she had talent. She had drive. And seven seasons later, she’s now a top ad agency copywriter who has learned to endure the sexist comments and pigeonholing she encounters in the workplace. Peggy deals with it by ignoring it.
Her counterpart, the curvy redhead Joan, started the series as the office administrator, and she kept the agency afloat with her organizational skills, tell-it-like-it-is gumption and ability to read people. By series end, she’s a partner in the company, but when it’s taken over by a bigger agency, Joan is defeated. She can’t do her work without being demeaned by her male co-workers, who will not take direction from a woman. When she looks for help from her superiors, she finds it will come with a price, starting with a business trip where her boss can “get to know her better.”
Though women today still have to struggle for equal pay, “Mad Men” has made me grateful that I missed the era when women in the workforce were overtly treated as professional inferiors and targets of sexual ridicule and intimidation by men who didn’t yet know better. Those things still happen, but for the most part, it’s definitely no longer socially acceptable, and there are consequences for offenders. I’m grateful that the Joans and Peggys of the 1960s and 1970s paved the way so that in 2015, I can work and write freely without fear of retribution.
For at least five years, I’ve had a color picture of Don Draper, squinting his eyes and puffing on a cigarette, taped up beside my desk at work. And I hate cigarette puffing. I haven’t yet decided whether I’ll leave it up after Sunday or let Don slip out of my consciousness, like so many Tony Sopranos and Walter Whites before him.
If you haven’t yet hopped on “Mad Men’s” retro bandwagon, do yourself a favor and spend a couple of weeks with Netflix. It’s worth the pain.
‘Mad Men’ series finale
What: The Emmy-award winning series about advertising executives in 1960s/1970s New York
When: 9 p.m. Sunday